Also published at First Nations Telegraph
I can’t bring myself to look at the Indigenous guy standing next to me because his eyes are as black as his pupils and I’m already feeling uncomfortable being here. I’ve just arrived at an art centre in the Northern Territory and we’re standing alone in a low-lit room while he explains the complex meaning behind the large Aboriginal painting on the wall in front of us. I’ve never thought about Aboriginal culture in this much detail before, let alone had a proud Indigenous person talk to me directly about it. I’m unsure how to respond, what questions to ask.
He’s describing the multifaceted nature of his clan’s kinship structure and where he belongs in it, but he keeps using words from a language I don’t know, and referring to customs I’ve never heard of. I’m finding it really hard to follow and I can’t help but feel frustrated. Listening is tedious when you don’t understand; everything seems tedious when you don’t understand.
When we move into another part of the centre, I see three Indigenous women sitting on the floor painting wooden ceremonial poles. I want to take a picture, but I’m already overwhelming conscious of saying or doing anything that could be misinterpreted as remotely racist or insensitive. So I ask permission from the gallery coordinator, who is white.
“Can I take a picture?”
“They don’t really like it, but maybe if you ask nicely,” he responds with a tone that suggests he’s assumed I’m foreign.
I turn to the ladies on the floor, “can I please take a picture?”
Two of them look at me and one doesn’t even bother, they all say nothing and continue painting. I’m now questioning if they even speak English, and I’m far too embarrassed to keep trying to communicate with them. I turn and make myself busy looking at didgeridoos, the one thing in this place I have a mild understanding of.
Nowhere else in the world have I ever felt this aware of my own cultural ignorance. Yet here I stand in my motherland, scared to interact with locals because I’ve been taught nothing about who they are outside boomerangs, walkabouts and oppressed, violent drunks.
My school curriculum taught me that Captain Cook discovered Australia in the late 1700s and mumbled something about the dreamtime in picture books. The decades of civil war post 1788, and millennia of ancient customs pre 1788 barely got a look in. Since then, the media has shown me nothing but disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, struggling with basics like education, getting a job and staying alive.
Whereas now, with just 30 minutes exposure to something more honest and real, I’m already starting to form an entirely new perspective on who it is I share a country with.
The art centre I’m in is Buku-Larrnggay Mulk in Yirrkala, a remote Aboriginal community about 700km from Darwin. Over the decades, places like this have been created throughout Australia to savour the traditions of different Aboriginal cultures, some of the oldest still existing in the world. We don’t all know it yet, but they, and the communities surrounding them, are central to educating us about our past and future.
Buku-Larrnggay Mulk is full of weaves, barks, sculptures, ceremonial poles and other traditional pieces that represent the firmly established Yolŋu culture. Yolŋu is the Aboriginal civilisation of northern-eastern Arnhem Land. One fortunate enough to have survived through its hardships, and strong enough to have accepted history as history as a means to create the best possible future sharing soil with white people.
I think it’s about time white people did the same.
Australia’s history needs to be looked at outside the lens of the media. There’s a significant hole in the education system, with many educated Australians knowing very little about who we are and the details of what we’ve actually gone through as a nation. Our wilful ignorance, and reluctance to speak up about the inaccuracy of what we’re taught, is damaging to our progression into a new, more exciting era of knowledge and open mindedness.
By focussing on the wrong things, like our defensive stance on feeling guilty about something our generation didn’t do, we’re getting jammed at a major turning point in history. It’s not only unproductive, but it’s making us miss the bigger picture: the fact is, we’re uneducated and have a lot to catch up on if we want any credibility in the increasingly sophisticated global arena.
As I move around the space and absorb the nature of the realisation I’ve come to, I feel doors opening to a new way of thinking, and closing on the old. Having just travelled through the likes of India and Afghanistan, countries rich with heritage and distinct identities, I’m excited by the prospect of enriching and forming a proper understanding of my own. By interacting with this unique side of Australia, and learning the truth behind all interactions with this type of Australian, I’m about to grow as a person, and as an Australian citizen.
Closing the Gap between black and white Australia can’t just be about pushing Indigenous people into the world of privileged white Australians. People need to be pushed from both ends; with knowledge and awareness being shared both ways, on equal terms. It’s by acknowledging and acting on this that we will succeed in rearing a more cultured, proud and healthy generation of Australian children – black, white and everything in between.